I am honoured to announce the publication of Mark Burch’s new book, The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction, available here. Published proudly by the Simplicity Institute, this text brings together some of Mark’s finest essays on themes related to mindful sufficiency and voluntary simplicity, and includes a new introduction (posted below). A deep yet accessible book, here’s the blurb:
Many people sense that consumer culture is dragging us toward extinction. We feel trapped in a cell of our own making. If humanity is to have any sort of future worth living in, we must discover an exit from our confinement. There is a door, hidden in plain sight.
What sort of culture might appear if we took seriously the essential values and principles that form the deep structure of voluntary simplicity and used them to inform a new perspective of the good life? Might we discover an exit from the confining cell of consumer culture? Can we find the passage leading beyond individual lifestyle choice to cultural renaissance? This book aims to help seed this renaissance by widening the conversation about how we transition from the road to extinction to a path with heart that has a future.
As well as bringing this new book to your attention, I’d also like to mention one of the best of Mark’s earlier books, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and Planet, which is available here. These books are worthy additions to any library, large or small.
Below is the introduction to The Hidden Door.
The Door Hidden in the Wall
By Mark Burch
A few years ago, I participated in a practice called kirtan. Kirtan is a form of call and response singing conducted as a meditative practice. Its primary purpose is to generate joy. One evening the lead singer introduced a chant in English, instead of the customary Sanskrit, with the words: “I can see a door hidden in the wall.”
The image of a door hidden in a wall is one that has stayed with me ever since. For me, it’s a metaphor for the survival challenge humanity now faces. It expresses a sense of the forcible confinement into which consumer culture has brought us. But it also expresses the hope that an exit exists — if only we can find it.
In my imagination, the confining wall is the whole of consumer culture. It is not an individual person, or a specific institution, or a particular corporation per se, but rather the worldview, customs, and ideology that shapes all of these. It is a culture, even though individuals sometimes speak in its defense, institutions implement its practices and policies, and individuals teach their children its songs and stories so that it can replicate itself for generations. But consumer culture is also a cell, the walls of which are closing in on us. The constriction of the walls is driven forward by many forces, the most important of which are psychological. Now they are crushing many beings including us.
I believe the door in the wall to be voluntary simplicity, or what, in this particular collection of essays, I will sometimes refer to as mindful sufficiency. I’m not the discoverer of this way of life. Neither did I author its perspective of the good life. But I’ve been its avid student for half a century, and in that time and through personal experience I have come to believe that it represents a doorway to life flourishing in a situation that otherwise promises our extinction.
Some people find voluntary simplicity mysterious, even opaque. The door leading from extinction to renewed life is hidden in the same sense in which some Buddhist’s describe their doctrines as “self-secret.” They are truths hidden in plain sight because seeing them requires a change in the seer. When we change, then the way to the exit is obvious. Until we change, however, it remains hidden.
Over the last thirty years or so, a considerable literature has appeared about voluntary simplicity. A great deal of it recycles the same common sense advice about how individuals can simplify how they live. This literature has its place. Some of it is very useful. Some is trivial. Some is completely personal and anecdotal. Some is downright bizarre.
Far less common are works that penetrate the deeper structure of values and meaning that I believe constitutes the DNA of voluntary simplicity. What might happen if, beginning from a place of sympathy and admiration for this way of life, we were to dream it forward? What sort of culture might appear if we took seriously the essential values and principles that constitute simple living and let them shape a new perspective of the good life? What might happen if we extended this outlook from the realm of individual lifestyle choice to that of an agenda for cultural renaissance? This book aims to make a contribution to such a process by exploring topics not usually addressed in the simplicity literature.
This collection of essays is not a primer on simple living. The discussions we undertake here assume that readers are already familiar with the concepts and values of voluntary simplicity and perhaps even some of its history. I will offer a very brief overview here by way of introduction, but if this is a new topic for you, I recommend that you consult one of the very good introductions to be found elsewhere, which will certainly help in navigating the regions we will explore below. (1)
Voluntary simplicity is a way of life. It is a philosophical outlook as well as an aesthetic and a spiritual sensibility. Some might say it’s also a direction for cultural and technical development that calls for its own politics, its own economic institutions, and its own creative process.
Voluntary simplicity is rooted in the practices of mindfulness and material sufficiency. Through bringing mindfulness to our daily routines, we seek the maximum of well-being achievable through the minimum of material consumption. Well-being applies to all life on Earth, not just human beings. It is about enough, for everyone, forever.
In addition to mindfulness and material sufficiency, voluntary simplicity includes the practice of ecological trusteeship, nonviolence, individual and local economic self-reliance, and community solidarity. It prefers sufficiency to affluence. It values leisure, relationships, and community involvement more than profit. It values spiritual development without endorsing a particular doctrine or tradition. It seeks ways of integrating meeting human needs with those of the natural world rather than merely balancing them as if they stood in opposition. Many people who share this perspective have experienced how a good life, rich in meaning, love, community, and reward, can flourish on very modest material resources. They have discovered that it is the single-minded pursuit of luxury affluence that undermines the long-term sustainability and well-being of both human societies and Earth’s natural communities.
Voluntary simplicity is not new, not a celebration of poverty, not a religion, not exclusively rural, and not at all opposed to beauty or artistic expression. It affirms the value of technology when selectively developed and employed to serve purposes worthy of humanity. While the frugal use of money and resources certainly has its role, voluntary simplicity is not primarily about living cheaply. Most of all, it is certainly not about going back to any previous period in history. I believe that only by pursuing sufficiency can both the injustice of poverty and the unsustainability of affluence be resolved without harm. Discerning sufficiency requires mindfulness.
Another way to describe voluntary simplicity is to contrast some of its key elements with their counterparts in consumer culture:
- In consumer culture, people want to go as fast as possible, wield as much power as possible, and amass as many material goods as possible. This leads to a rushed, inattentive, and unappreciative way of life. Voluntary simplicity cultivates a slower, more mindful approach to life, less cluttered with stuff and more appreciative of the present moment.
- In consumer culture, people want to increase their consumption of everything because they think this makes them better off. For practitioners of voluntary simplicity, the goal is sufficiency of consumption. Both under-consumption (poverty) and over-consumption (affluence) are viewed as harmful.
- In consumer culture, people pursue external sources of reward such as social status, material possessions, money, and power over others. Simple living promotes cultivation of internal sources of reward such as friendship, strong families and healthy communities, expansion of knowledge, aesthetic values, and spiritual insight.
- In consumer culture, the main engine of production is the corporation. For voluntary simplicity, the main engine of production is symbiotic relationships between the ecosphere and human communities. Therefore, environmental stewardship is basic to simple living.
- Consumer culture is structurally violent, whereas practitioners of simple living strive to minimize structural violence by changing their consumption choices, especially for luxury goods.
- In consumer culture, we meet all important life needs through earning income and spending the income in markets that supply goods and services. In simple living, there is more of a do-it-yourself ethic, more production occurs at or near home, or outside money exchange markets.
- Consumer culture requires far-flung global markets and resource supplies. Living simply values local production, working with and for one’s neighbours, and keeping social and economic relations close to home and under local control.
- Consumer culture focuses on production and consumption of luxuries, while simple living focuses on production of leisure and well-being provided by sufficiency of necessities.
- In consumer culture, technology is an end in itself, a profit centre, and the main measure of progress. For simple living, technology is a means to an end and only one factor contributing to a good life.
Voluntary simplicity is a highly progressive socio-cultural development. It aims to take us beyond the obvious failures of consumer culture to deliver a healthy, environmentally and socially sustainable, way of life. Voluntary simplicity is about qualitative deepening, not quantitative growth. It therefore implies a steady-state economics with a focus on qualitative development as a barometer of progress—not mere expansion of the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.
To date, voluntary simplicity has been mostly an individual choice. But over the last fifteen years, it has become obvious that social and economic structures play a significant role in making it easier or more difficult to choose a simple life. A politics of simple living is beginning to emerge, which will someday address these issues.
I’ve come to believe that both the source and the destination of simple living is the cultivation of mindfulness—a more mindful way of life. I see it as the first strand in the DNA of simplicity. Accordingly, mindfulness is the topic of the first essay in this anthology. Others who write about simple living may have differing views on the matter or may give mindfulness a different priority in their hierarchy of values. But my own study and experience continues to reveal mindfulness (known by many different names) as a perennial theme in the history of simple living, in the accounts of those who love simple living, and a mental discipline, the development of which is central to a good life.
The second strand in the DNA of simplicity is the principle of sufficiency. Both in individual livelihood and a culture of simple living, sufficiency is the value that replaces consumer culture’s obsession with avarice and affluence. The value of sufficiency arises from a radically different understanding of what material consumption contributes to a good life. Also embedded in the value of sufficiency is a sense of proportion and sensitivity to limits that are both essential to fashioning meaning and sustaining well-being for all, forever. It would be difficult to deny that in its pursuit of luxury comfort and material affluence, consumer culture offers many pleasures. But what is mostly missing from its menus are the longer term costs incurred by luxury indulgences. A rational culture needs also to take these into account if it aims to live long in the land.
Mindfulness and sufficiency together form the essential braid of voluntary simplicity’s DNA. They spiral around each other lending this way of life its dynamic, structure, and direction. All the other essays in this anthology explore how the perspective offered by mindfulness and sufficiency can be brought to bear on a number of considerations central to a culture of simple living. Staying with the metaphor of DNA, we might think of these other topics as base-pairs that bridge between the spiral strands of mindfulness and sufficiency, relating them to each other in specific ways, enabling their synergy, and offering at least a partial anatomy of an alternative to consumer culture.
I can imagine a great many such bridges. We should explore them all. In what follows, I make a beginning by discussing five of them:
“Communicating Simplicity” begins from the observation that once we discover the value of mindfulness and sufficiency, a natural impulse is to share this experience with others. This process is inherently relational and implies community. It also implies opting for certain ways of communicating and leaving aside others. Every mode of communication known to humanity brings the parties into a relationship, which is partly structured by the mode of communication itself. Bringing mindfulness to these relationships is necessary to choosing wisely how we behave in them.
Discussion of communication evolves naturally toward the subject of “Educating for Simple Living.” There is a myth prevalent in popular culture that simplicity is somehow natural to human beings—that we begin from simplicity and develop toward complexity and sophistication. But the thesis of this essay is that while development from simplicity to complexity characterizes the early stages of human growth, the story doesn’t and shouldn’t end there. What comes naturally to human beings are the same things that come naturally to other species with whom we share the Earth: To feed and breed to the limits of the available resource base, while often overshooting them. To manifest a way of life which is materially simple but culturally and spiritually rich is profoundly unnatural and requires deliberate attention to learning what exactly it is that empowers people to secure an ever greater measure of well-being on an ever more modest expenditure of energy, resources, and labour. It is what the great twentieth-century historian Arnold Toynbee called the “Law of Progressive Simplification” that characterized great civilizations. We need to teach each other how to do this with at least as much dedication and discipline as we once gave to achieving success in consumer culture.
Another important dimension along which we relate to each other and to the natural world is the economy. “Simplicity and Economy” takes up the question of what an economy might look like if it was oriented around the values of mindfulness and sufficiency rather than the oppressive promotion of consumerism and economic growth. Our economic behavior—the things we do that transform matter and energy into the goods and services we need for a good life—have threads leading back into the education that prepares us for our economic roles and the part played by communication in economic relationships. But deeper still, it leads back to the role played by mindfulness in guiding our choices and behavior, and how the value of sufficiency brings a sense of proportion and limits to our economic activities.
Today, it is almost impossible to discuss economics without also considering technology. “Technology and Simplicity” explores what role technology might play in a culture of simple living. The benefits that scientific discovery and technical innovation have brought to people are obvious. But under regimes of capitalism, consumerism, and paranoid institutions of governance, technological hypertrophy and misapplication are equally obvious. Bringing mindfulness to our use of technology leads to insights about how the role of technology in society in general, and the economy in particular, might change if technology was oriented to serve simple living rather than consumerism and private profit. In this essay, I also hope to dispel the stereotype that simple living is anti-technological, when instead it calls for a reorientation of the technological project to serve different values.
Finally, if there is one goal we might all agree on, it is that the good life aims to increase human well-being. We often differ, sometimes violently, about exactly what constitutes well-being and how to achieve it. We also differ as to whether achieving well-being for people is even possible apart from assuring the well-being of the whole community of life on Earth. But it seems to me that the concept of well-being is inextricably linked with that of human rights, since human rights are declarations about the conditions of livelihood we believe are necessary for a minimum of well-being. In “Simplicity, Sustainability, and Human Rights,” I take up this discussion and I argue that consumer culture—traditionally portrayed as the most successful pathway to increasing well-being and protecting human rights—is in fact the single greatest threat to them and that conserving our rights and promoting well-being is highly unlikely apart from a culture of simple living.
I hope this book becomes one seed in a landscape planted by many hands. Indeed, the planting is already started. The landscape is that of the heart, and the imagination, and of culture. As this new land is tended and flourishes, so will humanity flourish. Voluntary simplicity is the door hidden in the impregnable wall of our cultural blindness and inertia. I believe it is our single best hope for thriving into the deep future.
Mark Burch’s book, The Hidden Door, is available here.
- For an introductory discussion of voluntary simplicity see: Mark A. Burch, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet (Gabriola Island, BC.: New Society, 2000). For an excellent history of simple living in North America, see: David E. Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985). For a truly inspiring anthology of quotations from many cultures and historical periods respecting simple living, see: VandenBroeck & Goldian, eds., Less Is More: An Anthology of Ancient & Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996). For an unsurpassed anthology of contemporary writing about simple living see: Samuel Alexander, ed., Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture. Whanganui, New Zealand: Stead & Daughters, 2009). For a classic anthem to simple living and an account of a personal experiment with this way of life see: Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Rev. ed. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf., 1992). And finally, for what has become another North American classic, see: Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich.(2nd rev. ed. New York, NY: Harper, 1993).